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Home arrow E-Library arrow Full Text Articles and Essays arrow Pushing Boundaries, Mixed-Race Artists Gain Notice, NYT, 2011
Pushing Boundaries, Mixed-Race Artists Gain Notice, NYT, 2011 PDF Print E-mail

Pushing Boundaries, Mixed-Race Artists Gain Notice

July 5, 2011

For years Heidi W. Durrow heard the refrain: editors wouldn’t publish her novel because readers couldn’t relate to a protagonist who was part black and part Danish. But when that novel, “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky,” was finally published last year (after about four dozen rejections, said Ms. Durrow, who is, of course, black and Danish), the coming-of-age story landed on best-seller lists.

Today Ms. Durrow finds herself in the elite precincts of The New Yorker and National Public Radio — which a few weeks ago began the Summer Blend Book Club, featuring works about multiracial people.

And work by mixed-race artists is increasingly visible in museum exhibitions, in bookstores and online — raised to the spotlight by new census numbers that show a roughly 32 percent increase since 2000 in the number of Americans declaring multiracial identity, as well as by a biracial president, an explosion of blogs and Web sites about multiracialism, and the advent of critical mixed-race studies on college campuses.

“The national images of racially mixed people have dramatically changed just within the last few years, from ‘mulattoes’ as psychically divided, racially impure outcasts to being hip new millennials who attractively embody the resolution of America’s race problem,” said Michele Elam, an associate professor of English at Stanford University.

Both images, she said, are wrongheaded and reductive.

Much of the work by mixed-race artists, though certainly not all of it, reveals the fault lines and pressure points that still exist in a rapidly changing America. It is on these rough edges that many multiracial people live, and where many artists find the themes that animate their work: the limits of tolerance, hidden or unacknowledged assumptions about identity, and issues of racial privilege and marginalization.

“These images and narratives are not just entertaining,” said Ms. Elam, who is also the author of “The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics and Aesthetics in the New Millennium.” “They can influence, both consciously and unconsciously, how we think about race today in our nation.”

In much the same way, half-breeds and “tragic mulatto” characters, created mostly by white artists, instructed past generations on the perils of transgressing racial boundaries.

To be sure, the representation of mixed-race artists is uneven. For instance, multiracial writers and themes are not much in evidence on the big screen, even when multiracial actors are. (One high-profile biracial actress is Maya Rudolph in “Bridesmaids,” in which she plays a biracial bride marrying a white man, and race is never discussed.)

Yet the current quest among many multiracial artists to find fuller cultural expression goes beyond the “mulatto millennium” described by the author Danzy Senna in her cheeky 1998 essay about the wave of mixed-race-themed anthologies and memoirs, the rise of “ethnically ambiguous” models in fashion and magazines, and multiracial stars like Mariah Carey. Now it’s about voice.

“We are saying we are the American experience,” Ms. Durrow said in a recent interview. The census, she said, “doesn’t say enough about who you are, it doesn’t tell about the complications, it doesn’t tell a story.”

To support and showcase artists telling their stories of the mixed experience, Ms. Durrow and Fanshen Cox, a biracial actor and Ms. Durrow’s best friend, created the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival in Los Angeles in 2008.

Last month, at the fourth annual festival, a table was crowded with works by critically acclaimed authors: Ms. Senna’s “You Are Free” nestled near “Dreams From My Father” by Barack Obama, which nudged “Picking Bones From Ash” by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. There were also spots for “Pym” by Mat Johnson, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” by Jamie Ford, and Ms. Durrow’s “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky,” which deals with a girl who survives a family tragedy.

Ms. Senna’s short-story collection, “You Are Free,” about women of various racial backgrounds, received good reviews when it came out this spring. So did “Pym,” Mr. Johnson’s satirical novel about a biracial professor of American literature who embarks on a misadventure to discover how the idea of whiteness is constructed.

Showcased in museums is the work of Kip Fulbeck, an artist, writer and art professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Mr. Fulbeck, who is Asian and white, has written disarmingly direct books, including “Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids” and “Part Asian/100% Hapa,” which pair photographs with short personal statements on identity that go beyond racial categories, showing what is not visible. (Hapa refers to a mixed heritage that includes Asian or Pacific Island ancestry.)

The future promises more of the same. As part of its 125th-anniversary events, Vancouver, British Columbia, will host “Hapa-Palooza: A Vancouver Celebration of Mixed-Roots Arts and Ideas” from Sept. 6 to 10. Ms. Durrow and Ms. Cox will organize an event there.

A few weeks later, at Mockingbird Books, a children’s bookstore in Seattle, Ms. Cox and Ms. Durrow will host a children’s book festival with readings and storytelling. The census shows that multiracial people are the fastest growing youth group in the country.

“These stories are re-imagining families for people,” said Ms. Durrow, who grew up fluent in her mother’s Danish and eating her dishes but seeing few cultural reflections of mixed people.

This year about 1,500 people attended Mixed Roots festival at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, compared with 1,000 last year and about 300 the first year, estimated Ms. Cox, who also has a white mother and a black father.

Ms. Cox and Ms. Durrow, both Los Angeles residents, met in 1999 at an audition in New York. Ms. Cox, 41, has a recurring role as a social worker on the soap opera “Days of Our Lives” while Ms. Durrow quit acting for her first love, writing.

At the recent festival the women were jubilant, watching artists, scholars, their friends and family jam the hallways and spill outside, reveling in an atmosphere in which no one stared at a white woman toting a brown-skinned, blue-eyed child. The festival included art projects for children and films like “One Big Hapa Family,” about four generations of a Japanese-Canadian family.

Victoria Mahoney’s feature film, “Yelling to the Sky,” about two biracial sisters growing up in a tough neighborhood, shows that racial identity is not always front and center in the work of mixed artists. “Yelling,” which had its Los Angeles premiere at the Mixed Roots festival after a premiere this year at the Berlin Film Festival, turns an eye on issues of class and family.

The film stars Zoë Kravitz (daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet) as Sweetness O’Hara and Gabourey Sidibe (of the film “Precious”) as a bad girl. Far from being a model family of multiracial chic, the father drinks, the mother has emotional problems, the older sister struggles with motherhood and Sweetness deals drugs.

Race does matter: the camera lingers on Sweetness as she faces a school cafeteria with whites on one side, blacks on the other and slowly turns away.

Ms. Mahoney, the producer, writer and director, said that choosing to depict a family that mirrors her black and Irish roots made the film harder to sell to distributors.

Still, Ms. Senna (whose first book, “Caucasia,” in 1998 made her a phenomenon for its story about two biracial sisters who appear to be of different races) said she welcomed nuances that defied easy notions about identity.

“I want more complexity around the topic of race, not less, in examining the idea that pure blackness or pure whiteness or pure anything exists,” said Ms. Senna, who identifies herself as both black and biracial.

“You Are Free” explores issues like status anxiety and motherhood. Race is sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background and sometimes emerges in unexpected ways. At Mixed Roots this year Ms. Senna read a story from her collection about a marriage that appears interracial — she looks white and he looks black — but both are biracial.

James McBride, author of the now-classic memoir “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” said he viewed the Mixed Roots festival as part of the larger work of exploding stereotypes. At the same time, he feared that parsing multiracial identity was quickly becoming a preoccupation of the well off.

“Tiger Mom’s kids are going to do just fine,” Mr. McBride said. “I’m worried about the Korean woman married to the white guy who drives a beer truck and loses a job. No one is telling their story.”

Ms. Durrow responded that if people go back far enough in their genealogy they will discover a mixed experience, which the festival defines broadly to include interracial couples, multiracial families and transracial adoption. “There is nothing exclusive about this club at all,” she said.

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